Could the Internet pose a threat to culture by restricting serendipity? That’s the topic of a fine article in Intelligent Life magazine, though I find myself more intrigued than worried by the growing importance of language in bringing about happy coincidences:
When the internet was new, its early enthusiasts hoped it would emulate the greatest serendipity machine ever invented: the city. The modern metropolis, as it arose in the 19th century, was also an attempt to organise an exponential increase, this one in population. Artists and writers saw it as a giant playground of discovery, teeming with surprise encounters. The flâneur was born: one who wanders the streets with purpose, but without a map.
Most city-dwellers aren’t flâneurs, however. In 1952 a French sociologist called Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe asked a student to keep a journal of her daily movements. When he mapped her paths onto a map of Paris he saw the emergence of a triangle, with vertices at her apartment, her university and the home of her piano teacher. Her movements, he said, illustrated “the narrowness of the real Paris in which each individual lives”.
To some degree, the hopes of the internet’s pioneers have been fulfilled. You type “squid” into a search engine, you land on the Wikipedia page about squid, and in no time you are reading about Jules Verne and Pliny. But most of us use the web in the manner of that Parisian student. We have our paths, our bookmarks and our feeds, and we stick closely to them. We no longer “surf” the information superhighway, as it has become too vast to cruise without a map. And as it has evolved, it has become better and better at ensuring we need never stray from our virtual triangles.
Google can answer almost anything you ask it, but it can’t tell you what you ought to be asking. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Centre for Civic Media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a long-time evangelist for the internet, points out that it doesn’t match the ability of the printed media to bring you information you didn’t know you wanted to know. He calls the front page of a newspaper a “discovery engine”: the lead story tells you something you’re almost certain to be interested in—the imminent collapse of the global economy, or Lady Gaga’s latest choice of outfit—and elsewhere on the page you learn that revolution has broken out in a country of whose existence you were barely aware. Editors with an eye for such things, what Zuckerman calls “curators”, are being superseded by “friends”—people like you, who probably already share your interests and world view—delivered by Facebook. Twitter is better at leading us to the interests of people beyond our social circle, but our tendency to associate with others who think in similar ways—what sociologists call our “value homophily”—means most of us end up with a feed that feels like an extended dinner party.
Serendipity on a city street:
(Hat tip: A Mindful Life)
It occurs to me that serendipity happens walking along the street of a city or making a Google query in very different ways. If I experience a happy coincidence while out on a walk, it may be that I bump into somebody unexpected or encounter a surprising demonstration on the sidewalk. But if I rely on a search engine query for serendipity, I am encountering coincidences in the realm of language.
Google queries for words like “squid” turn up more than just information about the cephalopods. Googling will turn up businesses like Squid Software, products like Turbo Squid, squid art, squid recipies, and so forth. More than ever before, a thing’s name becomes one of the most important things about it.
Having a name that is well chosen relative to all the other names already in use anywhere in the world makes it more likely that people will encounter you. Search engine marketing pros are working hard to make serendipity work in favor of their clients, and businesses have been known to pay a million dollars or more for just the right domain name.
Everything happens for a reason, mystics sometimes say, and every name reveals essence. What’s happening today is that our names and the names of everything in the world are becoming the most important organizing principle which makes good surprises possible.